"Monty Python's Flying Circus" is perhaps best described as the "Saturday Night Live" of British Television. While the show didn't last as long as "SNL" (the BBC only ran new episodes from 1969 to 1974), its dry, leftfield laughs and bizarre improv riffs established the "Pythons" as a legendary troop whose humor has influenced nearly every TV and movie comedy that's come since (including "SNL").
In 1971, the Pythons released their first theatrical film, 'And Now For Something Completely Different,' which first introduced the eccentric comedians to countries outside of the United Kingdom. None of the members of the group were prepared for the rabid cult following that would foolow. After "Monty Python's Flying Circus" retired from television, the Pythons released 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' in 1975, followed by the intellectually charged 'Life of Brian' in 1979 -- the first was a bizarre mish-mash of medieval satire and witty sketch comedy, while the second was a biting examination of religion and its effects on people.
Before they split in the mid '80s, the Pythons dropped their last film onto unsuspecting audiences -- 'The Meaning of Life.' Darker than their earlier fare, 'The Meaning of Life' garnered critical praise, but split fans of the Pythons between those who loved this surreal endgame and those who were baffled by the stark tone of the Pythons' final collaboration.
The film returns the troop to their sketch comedy roots by including a series of vignettes spread across seven sections -- each examining a stage of existence and attempting to define the meaning of life (quite literally). The resulting bits deal with everything imaginable -- birth, religion, education, conflict, obsession, depression, old age, death, and the afterlife. It's certainly the broadest film in the Python canon, but it doesn't have as many memorable characters or sketches. Arguably the most memorable image in the film is of an insanely obese man eating until he bursts -- not exactly the sort of cinematic memory you lock away and treasure.
For me, the songs are actually the standouts in this one -- "Every Sperm is Sacred" and "Isn't It Awfully Nice to Have a Penis?" are some of the most inspired bits in the film. The satirization of Catholicism, the first World War, and the end of life are also brilliantly funny and edgy at the same time. But then there are complete missteps too -- the aforementioned obesity sketch, the overly long Zulu segment, and a few tonally disjointed philosophical monologues slow down the film and rob it of the Pythons' famous exuberance. Instead of feeling irreverent, 'The Meaning of Life' often feels angry and defeated.
Don't get me wrong, many people find a lot to enjoy in 'The Meaning of Life.' The team's taste for sharp humor is still on full display -- the writing is impeccable and densely packed with layer upon clever layer of wit. Perhaps best of all, the film genuinely has something to say. My personal comments aside, newcomers to Monty Python should still check this one out -- just be warned, it shares little in common with the Pythons' lighter material.
Considering the insanely loyal built-in fanbase for anything Python, I was really surprised to see this film ported to HD DVD without much effort to enhance the picture or improve the quality of the presentation. Yes, the resolution is sharper and the higher bitrate gives the transfer more room to breathe, but these inherent format upgrades only provide a basic improvement over the most recent 2005 DVD edition of the film.
First the good news -- this 1080p transfer uses the VC-1 codec to render natural skintones, a warm palette of vivid colors, solid black levels, and good shadow delineation. There's even an impressive amount of detail that pops up as a result of the increased resolution.
On the not-so-bright side, this transfer's color saturation doesn't hold a candle to richer catalogue releases, the contrast occasionally wavers and feels slightly artificial, and the entire picture lacks dimension. The screen feels flat throughout and there isn't a believeable depth of field present in the image. There are even bouts of artifacting and noticeable issues with black crush. These deficiencies are present on the standard DVD as well, but we've come to expect better from high-def.
To be fair, as many 'Meaning of Life' fans already know, restoration efforts have been thwarted over the years by numerous print difficulties, but I still have to question the apparent lack of effort that the studio put into this HD DVD edition of the film.
All things considered, if don't already own 'Meaning of Life' on disc, it's probably still worth picking this one up. But if you're looking to upgrade your DVD, keep waiting -- the visual improvements on this HD DVD edition are minor and fail to justify the cost of purchasing 'The Meaning of Life' again.
The sound mix for 'The Meaning of Life' was remastered in 5.1 surround for the 2005 DVD release and the same track is offered here as a roomier Dolby Digital-Plus mix (1.5 Mbps).
As you might expect, aside from stray ambiance, the sound design shows its roots and generally doesn't allow for much immersion into the audible world of the Pythons. Bass tones are throaty, treble levels are unstable, and the soundfield doesn't include any convincing environmental acoustics. The entire production sounds as if it's been recorded on a sound stage and there aren't enough authentic moments to suggest otherwise. Worst of all, the film's songs and score crumble under the weight of the remix -- trumpet blasts are tingy, the percussion sounds like a bowl of Rice Krispees, and the background choirs are muddled.
On the bright side, dialogue is crisp and only falters on a few occasions. Channel movement (usually limited to side-to-side pans) is decent, ambiance is adequate, and accuracy is respectable (although sounds clearly come from individual speakers without resonating in other channels).
For the most part, this is an underwhelming track that fails to invigorate the originally flat soundfield. Not unlike the video, the sound package for 'Meaning of Life' on HD DVD doesn't offer a significant upgrade over the Special Edition DVD.
Fans of 'Meaning of Life' will be pleased to see that this HD DVD is packed to the brim with supplements, all ported over from the Special Edition DVD.
After watching the brief but clever "Introduction by Eric Idle" (which I won't spoil here), you'll find a feature commentary with co-directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. When the two are speaking, the track is quite good, but they fall into silence a bit too often to live up to better commentaries on other Python releases. Gilliam's continued love of the film is obvious, but he tends to dominate the conversation. At least he's candid and never shies away from discussing the in-fighting that split the Pythons. Overall, fans should find this an interesting track, but it's not likely to convert any of the film's detractors.
The real treasure trove of information on this disc is "The Meaning of Making The Meaning of Life" (49 minutes) -- a behind-the-scenes documentary that details the genesis of the film, the shoot, and its eventul release. The best part of this feature is the sheer candor from everyone involved. Unlike the more self-congratulatory promo pieces typically produced for discs like this, the interviews and on-set footage included here provide a fascinating glimpse into the volatile minds and bruised egos behind the laughs. John Cleese in particular makes his distaste for the film clear and discusses how he personally would've changed the film. This is a must-see for any Python fan regardless of your opinion of the film itself.
Next up is "The Snipped Bits" (19 minutes), a collection of deleted scenes that include seven sketches cut from the main body of the film. Most of these moments are extensions to existing vignettes, but there are some laughs to be had. "Educational Tips to Prepare You for Life in the Real World" (6 minutes) is a more-recently filmed sketch with John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle that shouldn't be missed. Cleese plays Ken Enron Cheney, the headmaster of two schools -- a Halliburton business school and a sexual education clinic. For my money, this was easily the funniest thing on the disc.
Wrapping up the "serious" supplements are: alternate versions of the film's three songs (9 minutes), a collection of promotional material, a featurette called "Song and Dance" that looks at the choreography for two of the musical numbers, and an interesting segment called "Remastering a Masterpiece" (8 minutes) that examines the difficulties in preserving original film elements. This one takes a sharp left turn into farce near the end and sets the stage for a collection of amusing pieces common to Monty Python special features.
The first of these alternative supplements is a second commentary titled "Soundtrack for the Lonely: A Soundtrack for People Watching at Home Alone," an overplayed, extended joke that features a man who coughs, laughs, and mutters to himself on a regular basis as he watches the film. "Un Film De John Cleese" (2 minutes) is a fake trailer that amusingly teases what 'The Meaning of Life' would've been like if John Cleese was the sole writer, director, and star of the film. "What Fish Think" (17 minutes) is an overplayed screen-saver aquarium that vocalizes the inner-desires of its fish. Finally, "Virtual Reunion: The Pythons Together Again" (3 minutes) is a bit that features an extremely quiet and awkward reunion of the original cast members.
(Note that all of the included video supplements are presented in 480i/p and look considerably weaker than the film itself.)
'The Meaning of Life' isn't the Monty Python film I would have chosen to lead the troop's charge to high-def -- its tonally strained collection of sketches has always split fans into two warring factions. Unfortunately, the HD DVD doesn't offer much for fans looking to upgrade their Special Edition DVD. The video and audio are average at best, and while supplements are fun to dig through, they're duplicates of the features already found on the DVD. All in all, Monty Python fans deserve better than this seemingly rushed, lackluster high-def offering.